When Deng Xiaoping first launched his program of ‘reform and opening up’ in 1978, he made a major strategic calculation, namely, that if the program were to succeed, it would need to elicit a positive response from the United States. As the dominant global strategic and commercial power, America guarded the gates to international trade, technology, and finance.
Reform and Opening Up
Deng Xiaoping understood that only the Americans could provide the international access needed to help China achieve a smooth economic lift off. But relations with the United States had hit a snag after the initial, spectacular success of the Nixon-Mao “opening” in February 1972.
During Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, a team of security experts botched an attempted burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington DC. Nixon’s role in covering up the Watergate burglary led to his resignation in disgrace in 1974. Thereafter, the U.S.-China relations drifted inconclusively for the next few years.
To be sure, there was a certain amount of expansion in the informal relations of trade, cultural exchange, and technology transfer.
In 1973, the two countries established unofficial diplomatic missions in their respective capitals, called “Liaison Offices”. Companies such as Boeing Aircraft and Pullman-Kellogg became the first American firms to land major commercial contracts in the newly-opened China market.
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Notwithstanding these early business deals and cultural exchanges, there was little tangible progress on the diplomatic front after 1972. And it was not just Nixon’s untimely downfall that impeded the progress of normalization. Within China, there were continuing obstructions as well.
Both Jiang Qing and Lin Biao had strongly opposed Mao’s decision to “sleep with the enemy.” Lin Biao had resisted rapprochement with the Americans right up to the point of his fatal airplane crash in September 1971.
Although Lin’s death cleared a path for Zhou Enlai to consolidate his diplomatic breakthrough with Henry Kissinger, Jiang Qing remained steadfast in her opposition. Signs of leftwing defiance became even stronger as the political infighting in China heated up in 1974 and 1975.
By that time, with Mao’s blessing, cultural exchanges between China and the United States had become a regular occurrence. The one major rule governing such exchanges, agreed upon by both sides, was that they were to be totally apolitical: no propaganda, no polemics, and no proselytizing allowed.
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NGOs and Exchange Programs
Since there were no official diplomatic channels that linked the two countries at that time, all bilateral exchanges had to be arranged informally, by non-governmental organizations. On the American side, there were two NGOs that sponsored and administered the exchange programs and the relationship between China and the United States.
One was the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the PRC, which was an offshoot of the National Academy of Sciences. It was responsible for organizing and coordinating scientific and technical exchanges.
The other sponsoring organization was the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, which handled sporting and other kinds of cultural exchanges. The National Committee on U.S.-China Relations had been established in 1966 to educate American opinion leaders about China.
Violation of No Politics Rule
A delegation of American mayors was scheduled to depart to China in September of 1975. However, in March, Jiang Qing struck again.
A Chinese performing arts troupe was scheduled to arrive in the United States in April. At the last minute, however, the Chinese side abruptly informed the National Committee that it was adding a new piece of vocal music to the troupe’s announced American repertory. The newly inserted song contained the following lyric: Taiwan tongbao, qilai; women yiding yao jiefang nimen!—“Taiwan compatriots, arise. We shall certainly liberate you!”
This was in clear violation of the no politics, no propaganda rule for cultural exchanges. After a hasty phone conference with the State Department, the directors of the National Committee informed the Chinese side that the proposed program change was not acceptable. The Chinese responded promptly and peremptorily canceling the entire tour.
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Jiang Qing’s Efforts to Derail US-China Relations
As payback for the American veto of the Taiwan liberation song, the Chinese side refused to issue a visa to a key member of the U.S. mayors’ delegation. Predictably, the National Committee responded by canceling the mayors’ trip altogether.
Of course, Jiang Qing was elated by the American side’s cancellation of the mayors’ delegation. There could be no doubt at all that she had been the architect of the musical Taiwan liberation incident that triggered the series of canceled exchanges. As China’s culture czar, her authority over the performing arts was supreme. No one else could have issued such instructions with such impunity.
Encouraged by her success in temporarily derailing the cultural exchange process, Jiang Qing redoubled her efforts to sabotage the budding U.S.-China relationship.
Common Questions about Deng Xiaoping’s Efforts to Revive US-China Relations
The main rule that governed the cultural exchanges between China and the United States was that they were to be totally apolitical: no propaganda, no polemics, and no proselytizing were allowed.
Two NGOs in the United States supported cultural exchanges and U.S.-China relations. One was the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the PRC, responsible for overseeing scientific exchanges. The other was the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, responsible for managing sporting and other kinds of cultural exchanges.
The song contained the following lyric: Taiwan tongbao, qilai; women yiding yao jiefang nimen!—“Taiwan compatriots, arise. We shall certainly liberate you!” This was in clear violation of the no politics, no propaganda rule for cultural exchanges.